Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

I was drawn to this little book by its title, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell, as well as by its cover, showing Eve holding the forbidden fruit. Life might be a lot easier if we didn’t take responsibility for our actions. If we could always fall back on blaming others when things went wrong, then they would have to rectify the situation. We could sit back and order them around to fix everything. In Scapegoat, Campbell has written short chapters covering specific individuals, religions, ethnicities and even animals and things that have been blamed for various ills.


Why do we have scapegoats? What is our need to transfer blame to others? Attribution theory states that one must find a reason for an event. When one can’t find anything obvious, one looks for conclusions anywhere. In the case of personal misfortune, I found Campbell’s reasoning below to hold particular relevance not only in the realm of scapegoating, but also in regards to unsportsmanlike Scrabble players:

“When we fail at things it is because of others; those who are below average bring us down. Whereas when we succeed it is due to our innate abilities (and when others succeed, we often put it down to luck).”

Campbell writes:

“We blame as we’ve always blamed, targeting minority and marginalized groups when things go wrong. But we’ve found new and unusual ways of doing so too–using pseudo-science and conspiracy theories–and technology makes it easier than ever before to spread these dangerous ideas. Whatever’s wrong with us, there might not be a cure, but there’s always a culprit.”


“Ultimately, we make scapegoats out of those we have come to believe are incapable of suffering–we dehumanize them, making them easier to hate.”

Christ and Alfred Dreyfus each has his own chapter. Jews, gays and other sexual scapegoats, and communists (including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) had the most interesting histories as groups. By far the chapter on witches and witch hunts throughout Europe and early America was the most revealing. Campbell relied on legal documents and testimonials from European and American courts in the sixteenth century to trace the evolution of one of civilization’s most paranoid times.

Scapegoating didn’t always target marginalized peoples. The funniest chapter dealt with those who were determined to find if not someone, then something, to blame for their misfortune. Farmers whose crops were destroyed demanded compensation by trying to sue the locusts that dined alfresco. Priests would threaten errant livestock with excommunication. A case in Switzerland from 1478 ruled:

“the insects were told to depart within the next six days from all places where you have secretly or openly done or might still do damage, also to depart from all fields, meadows, gardens, pastures, trees, herbs, and spots, where things nutritious to men and to beasts spring up and grow, and to betake yourselves to the spots and places, where you and your bands shall not be able to do any harm secretly or openly to the fruits and aliments nourishing to men and beasts.”

Scapegoat is not a heavy psychological read, and is supplemented by an informative bibliography. I will definitely be looking at the source material Campbell used in writing his book.

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